In the NCAA title game, smart money is on the sponsors

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The real force in the NCAA tourney
  • AP Photo/David J. Phillip
  • The real force in the NCAA tourney
Tune in tonight for the exciting title game in the National Corporate Athletic Association's product-placement tourney! On the court, Kentucky is a slight favorite over UConn, but in the larger arena of the tourney, the sponsors are heavily favored over the players.

As the New York Times noted over the weekend, a player on the winning team tonight will climb a Werner ladder—the official ladder of the NCAA championship—and cut down the net with a pair of Fiskars scissors—the tourney's official net-cutting scissors.

Throughout the tourney, players on the sidelines have been able to drink a beverage of their choice, so long as it's in a Powerade cup. During a pregame shoot-around before a Wisconsin-Baylor game earlier in the tourney, a renegade Wisconsin player who dared to approach the court with a bottle of Nestlé Pure Life water was intercepted by a security guard. The player was allowed to keep his illicit bottle once the label was torn off—yet another victory for the players. A Wall Street Journal reporter who brazenly challenged the rule that only NCAA-sanctioned cups were allowed courtside had his cat mug confiscated in the closing minutes of the East Regional final. Having spent millions to make Powerade the official and exclusive NCAA beverage, Coca-Cola isn't about to let its benefits seep away.

Remember when the tourney was a sporting event? That idea is played out. Now it's "an attractive opportunity for marketers to connect with consumers over a three-week period via multiple touch points including linear TV, online, social media, and in-store," Jon Swallen, chief research officer at Kantar Media, a market research firm, says on the firm's website.

Kantar Media calls the tourney "one of the largest and most valuable properties in all of television sports." It now beats out the NFL as the "top franchise in post-season TV sports" based on national TV ad revenue, Kantar says, with more than a billion dollars spent. A 30-second spot tonight runs about $1.5 million.

The big ad spenders aren't complaining. "We feel like we get a strong return on our investment," a marketing director for Capital One told Fox Business. Capital One is an "official NCAA corporate champion," along with Coca-Cola and AT&T.

Most fans attending the Financial Four—er, Final Four—cannot make out the product labels, because the games are being played at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX, a vast football stadium. A crowd of more than 80,000 is expected tonight, even though many will barely glimpse the action far below. At least they'll always be able to say they were there, kind of.

The Final Fours played in smaller venues years ago were "intense and beautiful," Jim Calhoun, who coached Connecticut to three titles before retiring, told the Times. "I like hearing the sneakers, and you don't get quite as much of that here," Calhoun said about AT&T Stadium. "But now, unfortunately, this is the trend. . . . Good or bad, it's moneymaking."

And what's more important in the NCAA—playmaking, or moneymaking? Point guards and power forwards will come and go, but Coca-Cola will always be with us.

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